The floating piers

Being one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Christo, together with his wife Jeanne-Claude, constantly pushed the limits of art with their wrapping acts for almost 60 years. Their veiling of the Reichstag or the Pont Neuf has burnt itself into our collective memory. Walking on Water, a film by Andrey M. Paounov, features Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s probably most ambitious project – the Floating Piers – and thus sets up a cinematographic monument to this artist.

However, this one-and-a-half-hour long cinema-vérité documentary is far more than just a mere description of this temporary, site-specific work of art. It’s a journey side by side with Christo, an invitation to see the world through his eyes, to follow his every step, to share his passion, his fears and his dreams. Like through a keyhole we can look behind the curtains and experience him not only as an artist but also as a man. So you will neither hear the voice of a narrator in this film nor see any interviews, as Christo himself tells us his very own story.

Walking on Water is the fourth documentary feature film by the Bulgarian writer-director Andrey M. Paounov, a compatriot of Christo, who has a sharpened eye for capturing the very essence of a story, known for such movies as The Boy Who Was a King. Starting with the artist’s first drawings on paper and ending with the last day on which the Floating Piers have been open to the public, Paounov invites us to follow the creation of the project from its very beginnings. Even after Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo didn’t reject the project of their floating pontoons, which they had already been planning together for many years. After failed realizations in Argentina and Japan, he eventually received permission to fulfil his project 2016 on Lake Iseo in Northern Italy, connecting the island of San Paolo with the mainland. While the regular updates on the days left before the opening of the site throughout the film create an agreeable tension, it’s a real pleasure to watch the footage of how the construction works went on, when workers assembled the piers like a puzzle in ballet-like movements.

“It’s not patience, it’s passion!”

From June 18th on, over one million visitors have walked on the over 200,000 high-density polyethene cubes, which made up the three kilometers long floating piers. Later covered with an orange shining fabric, they were spectacularly captured by drones for this film. But Paounov also reveals to us all the things that visitors could not have experienced while visiting the site, namely the long and arduous journey of its creation: Annoying conferences with the municipality council, where Christo almost fell asleep, his arguments with his nephew and most vigorous helper Vladimir while choosing the right fixation materials, or again the pretty nerve-wracking assembling of the artwork during a beginning storm. We can see and also feel, how deeply Christo worries about his project, almost as if it was his child. 

During a school class visit in New York in the run-up to the project, one boy asks Christo where he finds all the patience to create his works of art. “It’s not patience, it’s passion!” is the artist’s answer. It’s not a 9 to 5 job, Christo explains, since you “are all the time an artist”. But not every task that has to be accomplished by an artist must have a link to art, as Paounov shows us in his film: There are the unwanted meetings with the patrons, or the sale of drawings to finance the project, to only name a few. The climax is reached, when Christo threatens the local authorities with a closure of the Floating Piers, after their rejection to impose access restrictions to stop the masses of people coming each day to the site. The original soundtrack, together with composer Steve Reich’s “Pulses”, perfectly completes this visual experience, as it creates suspense and also allows the viewer to empathize with Christo even more. 

“We never do the same work twice” repeats Christo a few times in the film. Like all of his and Jeanne-Claude’s creations, the Floating Piers were like a firework: so colorful but fleeting. Paounov’s film captures this ephemeral beauty and thus preserves it for us, makes it accessible for everyone.  

By Martin Scherbakov

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